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Education in Crisis: Thoughts on Campus Uprisings at Mizzou, Yale and Beyond

The moving story of a student at the University of Missouri fasting to get the president to step down and his inspiring the football team to come on board has much to teach us. Kudos to the fasting student (who has said he does not want to be the center of any attention) and to the football players and coaches who stood by them and the faculty who for their own reasons stood up to the president. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, in a school much more privileged in every way than Mizzou, Yale University found itself in a turmoil with protests centered around the right to censure or not censure Halloween costumes some of which offended some minority groups on campus. As a senior at Yale put it, the Halloween protests were not really about costumes but “about real experiences with racism on this campus that have gone unacknowledged for far too long.” So behind Halloweengate was something quite substantial—a call to address values.

For me the news bubbling up from the student protests at Mizzou as well as the Halloween costumes at Yale are the tip of the academic ice burg. It is good that issues of values and ethics are coming out in the open so we can begin to scrutinize them and praise is due the young people who are rising up to speak out. But I think the guts of the issues go far deeper than what students are experiencing on the surface. For me, having been involved in academia and the effort to reinvent education for forty-five years, I am seeing the chicken coming home to roost.

What chicken is that? The chicken of unexamined academic values, or indeed of (supposedly) value-free education itself. This question strikes to the very heart of what we mean by education and who profits from it and who does not. Let me cite three notable observers of education. Albert Einstein said, “I abhor American education” (I will elaborate on this in a moment). Thomas Berry, geologian, scientist, student of world religions and eco-prophet talked about the “academic barbarism” that rules in upper education today. And the Dali Lama has said: “Education is in crisis the worldover.”

Sometimes our campuses can be so pretty, our endowments so fat, our students so busy, our faculty so engrossed in going to meetings and so filled with themselves, that we miss what is and is not going on underneath all the visible pageantry and busyness of a school year or a beautiful campus. We can miss the crisis that is staring at us. We can miss—as the Yale senior pointed out and the revolting students at Mizzou were demonstrating and fasting about—racism. We can miss the need to criticize the values spoken or not spoken in our educational systems.

I am convinced that the real underlying issue in education today—one that I hope the present revolts will ultimately uncover—is the impossibility of teaching values in a pedagogy that leaves out intuition or the right brain and very often the heart and the lower chakras. We are living in a post-modern time but our academic structures and pedagogy are seriously modern. We have knowledge factories but not wisdom schools and the Earth is dying because of it.

Let me turn to Einstein again and his critique of our culture. He said that values do not come from the intellect but from intuition and feeling “which are the same thing.” Is there room for intuition and feeling in our places of academic excellence? Or are we only teaching and rewarding the left brain—the analytic, verbal, rational, test-taking, intellectual brain? Einstein says we have been given two gifts—that of rationality and the sacred gift of intuition and that the former should serve the latter (because that is where values are born) but that we live in a culture that honors rationality and has forgotten the sacred gift. Clearly our educational system is mirroring as well as creating that kind of a culture.

If Einstein is correct that values do not come from the left brain but from the right brain and if our educational system is ill-equipped and even uninterested in teaching the right brain (except at rituals we call football games and other sport contests), then it follows that American University is teaching values or even knows how to teach values. Instead, it is taking our culture’s “values” for granted and not criticizing them or scrutinizing them or offering alternatives with “moral imagination.”

And that is why the students — God bless them—are fasting… and organizing… and rebelling.

The squelching of the intuitive brain not just an issue with schools but also and especially with the all-powerful accrediting bodies that keep them in business and that judge their right to exist or not exist. In decades of dealing with such I have never experienced an ounce of acknowledgement of the importance of right brain education such as art as meditation and ceremony or ritual. These bureaucracies are filled with anal retentive bean counters. Mystics are not welcomed.

This is why I created my own University and did not seek out accreditation but only formal licensing from the state of California. In fact, we took a survey among our doctoral students and 95% urged us not to seek accreditation because they were sure it would “destroy the creativity” that marked our school. It is a pretty pitiful state of affairs when there is no room for the right brain or for creativity in education or in its accrediting bodies. It helps explain why Einstein “abhorred American education.”

And it reveals itself in the clash over values happening on campuses. Not all the problems lie with the faculty and administration, however, as a recent article in The Week article demonstrates. The students themselves, many of them young adults, graduates of previous American educational experiences, come to the University ill prepared to dialog about values and instead easily turn a value confrontation into a “you surrender or leave” sort of diatribe, often marked by shibboleths of “racism” against someone who may disagree with them. Both adults and young adults need training on the place of values but alas!—for all of the good books in their libraries about the history of ethics—the actual teaching of ethics is severely compromised in a world where the left brain dominates. Instead of a balanced learning experience where both left and right brain learn together, we are producing graduates who are on their own to find their mystical or intuitive or value way in the world.

Please note that I am not saying that individual faculty or administrators do not hold values themselves but that the uncriticized values of our left-brain pedagogy and accrediting bodies do not. The problem is a system problem, not so much an individual or psychological problem (though the ego that needs to feather one’s own nest and live in denial and never examine the ethics of how one lands one’s pay check is obviously a personal ethical issue). The solution has to do with reinventing the forms in which we do education; we need to bring the body back; all the chakras; and above all imagination and creativity. We need to learn and teach not only by exercising the intellect but also by exercising the mystical or intuitive brain. Call it meditation; or mindfulness; or art as meditation; or fasting. Such practices take us into the place where we encounter stillness and where values are birthed. If we were all on such a journey, faculty, administrators, accrediting bodies and students we would not only be listening more deeply to self and others, we would be inspiring one another, young and old together. Is that too much to expect of an educational experience? I hope not.


We welcome Matthew Fox as one of our featured guest authors!

matt_fox_author_warm_DSC2352_emailMatthew Fox has worked for over 40 years reinventing forms of education for adults and for the past seven years for inner city teenagers. He is author of 32 books on spirituality and culture including The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human, The Reinvention of Work and most recently an autobiography that tells stories of his work as an educator, Confessions: The Making of a Post-denominational Priest.

William Hermanns, Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man (Brookline Village, MA: Branden Press, Inc, 1983), 95. See also 87, 135, 142.

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